Finding and losing nature in Belgium

The sun is glaring through the windows. The spring in Belgium has never been as beautiful. The scent of the wisteria blooming in the garden gets mixed up with the scent of the purple lilac carried over the fence from the neighbour´s yard, mixing the two into a wonderful fragrant cloud. The birdsong covers the sounds of neighbours chatting on their yards. The colours are vibrant as the air is clear. The haze, that would decend in the evenings and irritate my the throat is not there. When it rains, all the smells are amplified. I can smell nature. I can see nature. I can hear nature.

All this is possible because of the pause we have been forced to put out lives on since March. I am able to spend more time outdoors and I am overjoyed seeing people walking in the neighbourhood.  The dog walkers have been joined by families, young and older couples, even youngsters in the neighbourhood green spaces.

But this dreamy scenario was not always as dreamy.

You see, at the ripe age of almost 40, my invincible body and her immune system developed allergies. I don´t know for what exactly, but I know April has become the month of sneezes, snots and coughs, even occasional rashes. I´ve heard that allergies can be triggered by air pollution even at an older age. The culprit is clear: the Belgian airspace with its plentiful impurities. Except this year. This year my symptoms have been milder than ever.

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Allergy is only one of the challenges I´ve faced since moving to Belgian Flanders in 2006. When I arrived, I never considered to settle here as Belgium was not exactly the ideal country for an outdoorsy nature-lover like myself.  But as life (=love) had brought me to Flanders, I decided to give it a go. For now.

But while missing nature, I ended up getting angry at the country and its busy streets.  I blamed the paved and managed Belgian surfaces for my unhappiness (side note: Obviously not all my unhappiness can be blamed on the lack of nature in Belgium, but I´d like for now just to conclude that one´s surroundings do affect one´s wellbeing which is what I touch upon in this text). All I saw was the violent way nature was tamed and managed, and how I was reduced to a mere passer by who needed to stay on the path.

Everywhere in my immediate surroundings I was reminded of the human world and its grip on nature. I could never have the forest all to myself (Finnish privilege, I realise). If it wasn´t for the scouts making noise or bikers passing by, it would be the nearby highway not letting me forget I had never really left the civilisation. The sights, sounds and smells kept me tied to the human world.

On our street in one of city of Ghent´s  most densely populated housing areas, houses were attached to each other side-by-side. As soon as you stepped outside, there was life in front of you. Neighbors to talk to you, cars to honk at you, dog shit to step on and to all this, you had no time to prepare. It hit you just as you stepped out. For the introverted highly sensitive outsider that I am, this was often too much. At the same time, I loved the multicultural, active community of Ledeberg, and the idea of our street with (at the time) 19 nationalities.

To ease my own longing for nature, I let our tiny garden grow wild. I planted a facade garden and I took my tiny daughter and dog to the nearby “dirty park” (“vuile park”, i.e. Vijverspark). Most kids were not accompanied to the park by their parents so the kids played on the narrow sidewalks with cars whizzing by. Once a month I packed our family to hit one of the bigger nature reserves in the south of the country or the Dutch coast as I felt the growing need of feeling surrounded by the vastness of nature.

The family grew by one more child and the house started feeling inconvenient, the green even smaller and the busyness of the surroundings unbearable.  As a last resort before throwing in the towel and using force to move the unwilling love to Finland, we found a house not so far away from Ledeberg but in a distinctly different kind of neighbourhood.  Compared to Ledeberg, however, the move to a new neighbourhood included a steep decline in diversity of nationalities and a sharp increase in the average age of the residents.   The proximity of the highway and the inner ring around the city of Ghent and the subsequent gridlock in the afternoons on both sides of our neighbourhood, dawned on us only after settling in. My thirst for nature had got so acute, all I saw was the amount of light inside the house and the potential of greening the area around us.

 

All this came to a halt during the past almost two months when we have been forced to put our lives on a pause.  But a pause means a temporary stop.   The lockdown easement will start tomorrow. The freedom to move beyond one´s neighborhood will be returned and people are even recommended to use their own cars to leave public transport to those who need it more urgently.

After weeks of not being able to move as we wish to, the urge to drive to the coast or to one of the nature reserves with more services and facilities, will be as tempting as ever. What will it take to keep us from taking one of those 2-3 cars standing idle on our yards? How can we remind ourselves of the glorious silence on any morning of the week when there was no gridlock? How will we remember how the sudden smell of the may flowers at the side of the road lifted our moods on a walk in our neighbourhood? Will we remember the surprise of meeting so many familiar smiling faces in the nearby forest during the lockdown and how nice our neighbourhoods actually are and can be?

The lockdown has showed me that there is a wild side to the Belgian nature. Once we lift the blanket of human activity that covers the vibrant colours, the birdsong and the scents of the spring flowers, nature will take over.

The idea of losing that wild nature again breaks my heart. I have been waiting all these years to fall in love with it.